From Mayor Bloomberg's reforms to No Child Left Behind to a hungry twenty-four hour news media, public schools in America are being scrutinized and assessed like never before. While many critics have argued that judging schools solely on "metrics" is a dangerous and misleading practice, sometimes just a hard look at the school stats themselves can make even the most ardent number-cruncher scratch his head in bafflement.
The latest statistics to make education headlines are letter grades -- A, B, C, D, or F -- given to 1,224 of the more than 1,400 New York City public schools. Eighty-five percent of the school's grade was determined by test scores; the remaining 15% based on the school's environment.
The release of the letter grades understandably sent many parents, teachers, and administrators into frenzy. Many schools with strong reputations were shocked to receive ugly marks. Schools branded with an "F" will permit students to transfer in the summer. Low-graded schools must submit action plans to show how they can increase standardized test scores.
The hoopla surrounding the school report cards -- particularly the shock and distress by publicly humiliated ones -- reminds one of the headline-grabbing release of the "Persistently Dangerous Schools" list in late August of this year. Twenty-five New York City schools currently bear this reviled 'dangerous" label, and are now subject to intense pressure from the Department of Education to reduce their incident report statistics.
The fearsome title of "Persistently Dangerous" brings to mind images of knife-wielding street gangs storming school hallways. Actually, it means that a school has voluntarily reported either more than 60 "incidents," or a rate of 6 incidents per 100 students for two consecutive years. Each school effectively determines what qualifies within its walls as an incident; it can range from an angry comment to a bloody fistfight. Since the Persistently Dangerous list is based on self-reported data, city schools have an incentivized system that rewards sweeping actual dangerous behavior under the rug. All the public sees are the scary headlines.
How much can we trust these flavor-of-the-month lists of statistics from the Department of Education? Upon checking the "persistently dangerous" schools' new report card grades, the schools castigated in August as riotous hellholes suddenly look like relatively winning learning environments. Of the twenty-five dangerous schools, eleven received grades this week. (Thirteen are District 75 special education schools, which do not receive grades, and one, Powell Middle School for Law and Social Justice, was left off the list.)
The dangerous schools received two A's, two B's, five C's, one D, and one F, which belonged to PS 47 American Sign Language School, a school for hearing impaired children with an enrollment of less than two hundred. Not so shabby for a scarlet-letter-bearing bunch.
As a parent sending your kid to MS 296 South Bronx Academy for Applied Media, whom do you trust? Should you listen to the "Persistently Dangerous" headlines, which beg you to transfer your child out as fast as humanly possible, or do you cheer the "A" that the Department of Education just awarded the school? The same confusion sweeps across the city. Parents are rightly asking, "Can I trust these report cards?"
The answer is-- just as for the Persistently Dangerous list-- not really. Weighting eighty-five percent of a school's letter grade on its test scores openly encourages the discarding of "untested" skills (creativity, collaboration, public speaking, healthy living, music and art, just to name a few). The schools that obsess over standardized bubble tests are rewarded. However, they may actually be actively denying their students a well-rounded education.
New York City teachers union president Randi Weingarten agrees: "...the focus on standardized test scores pushes schools to devote even more time to test preparation, to the exclusion of important enrichment activities such as class trips, school plays and foreign-language instruction. What other message can a school that got a B or C or D take from this, even when most - if not all - of its students are meeting state standards?"
Under the leadership of a powerful CEO mayor, New York City has led the charge into a dangerous era in which the fad for education policy is to import statistics-driven paradigms from the business sphere. These mechanistic models are an ill fit in education, a wholly human institution. Testing may provide easy-to-crunch metrics, but it creates a negative, all-consuming test culture, and does not paint a comprehensive picture of students' abilities. Now our schools are saddled with letter-grade labels, and the only way to move up is by cranking up those all-important test scores.
By obsessing over assessing, the system tacitly encourages school officials to pour their time and resources into test preparation, or worse, cheating. "Whatever it takes" may become the destructive motto to avoid a big fat "F" next to your school's name in the newspapers. Where are the students' interests on this priority list?
Dan Brown is a teacher and the author of the just released memoir, "The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle."
A version of this essay originally appeared in the New York Post.
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